Cybernetic diasporic safe places

AUTHOR
Ananda Mitra

ABSTRACT

One of the most significant developments of the twentieth century has been the way in which people are able to move from one geographic location to another. With the advent of transportation technologies, it is now possible to efficiently and affordably travel great distances. For the West (developed nations) a significant impact of that process has been the influx of immigrants from the East (developing nations). For the people who have immigrated the impact has been on the loss of a sense of spatial stability and an emerging angst over identity as the dwelling place (the original Greek word for which is indeed ethos) of the diasporic people has changed. Furthermore, such displacements have been particularly problematized in a post-9/11 World where the West has become wary of the Other, and the Other, in turn, has had the urgent need to find a “safe” place in the West where the identity anxieties can be resolved. The idea of safety has thus become particularly problematized in a real world where the threats of terrorism, for instance, have produced threats to privacy and identity in real life. For instance, the increasing incidence of “hate crimes” in the United States becomes an indicator of the way in which the diasporic immigrants have to reconsider the safety of their real dwelling place as well as invent new dwelling places, perhaps in the virtual, where they can feel safe.

In this essay I would propose that the virtual space produced by the burgeoning Internet could provide such a safe place for the diasporic people. This proposition is grounded in two other theoretical premises. First, it has been suggested that cyberspace can be theorized as a discursive space where people with traditionally low “speaking capital” can find a voice (Mitra, 2001). By gaining that voice, a sense of agency develops which brings with it the ethical demand of speaking in a responsible fashion. At the same time, the speaking capital obtained on the Internet calls into questions the authenticity and trustworthiness of the many voices that could often be speaking together. Eventually, the sense of place is produced around the discourses that make up the fabric of the virtual, which remains embedded in the real.

The fact that the virtual is intimately tied to the real is the second key component of the current perspective since it has been argued that interaction with the virtual cyberspace necessarily happens within the context of the real spaces occupied by Netizens thus producing a synthetic cybernetic space which is defined by the material practices of a “real” geographic space and the “virtual” discursive space (Mitra and Schwartz, 2001). Consequently the construct of cybernetic space is built on the premise that real space is constantly being transformed and re-negotiated by the emergence of the virtual space that itself attempts to mimic the real. As a consequence it becomes urgent to consider the interaction between the discursive virtual place and the real material space. The advent of tools, such as portable computers with seamless Internet access, that allow the simultaneous tethering in the virtual and the real increases the possibility that people constantly dwell in cybernetic space.

Using these two perspectives it is possible to examine the way in which diasporic individuals and groups use their voices to create the discursive virtual while their everyday lived practices are embedded in the real. I argue that for people in diaspora the synthetic cybernetic space could produce the ethos or dwelling place where they can perhaps produce a sense of safety around familiar voices and discourses. This is particularly important to consider at this moment in time precisely because the sense of safety could be disappearing from real life. There is ample evidence of the increasing anxiety in real life as the diasporic, who are always already marginalized, find their voices and discourses increasingly controlled and censored.

These propositions and arguments would be supported using the discourses from a variety of web sites maintained and used by immigrants in diaspora. As pointed out earlier, immigrants have been particularly active in producing web sites that address many of their concerns that can not be discussed in the real-life public sphere. In this analysis the focus is primarily on the digital discourses produced for and by immigrants from India who have been particularly prolific in creating the web presence and utilizing the web to produce a sense of community. I would suggest that the ethos of the Indian diaspora is at a turning point as Indian immigrants are constantly re-thinking their speaking position and their diasporic dwelling place by living in the cybernetic world produced at the intersection of the real new places of the West and the virtual old places of the East. In the end, the analysis could suggest that, for those in diaspora, the Internet can influence the inevitable crisis of identity and the anxiety related to that crisis. Perhaps as the ethos of diaspora transforms and the diasporic spend more time in the cybernetic space producing and circulating their authentic voice an ethical response will be demanded by these voices as they attempt to carve out their diasporic safe spaces. The strategy mobilized by those in diaspora can eventually be appropriated by others who also feel a need to voice themselves in the virtual to produce a cybernetic safe space.

REFERENCES

Mitra, A. (2001). Diasporic voices in cyberspace. New Media and Society, 3, 1, 29-48.

Mitra, A. and Schwartz, R. L. (2001). From Cyber Space to Cybernetic Space: Rethinking the Relationship between Real and Virtual Spaces. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 7(1).

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